While I am not an expert on Burundi, I, like many others right now, am watching with dismay as violence in the country continues. My recent research has been on atrocity endings and Burundi today echoes with one finding from my work: the difference between halting (or in this case forestalling) mass atrocities and advancing democratization. These two valuable endeavors, history informs us, are not the same. While clearly strongly institutionalized democracies are the best system for protecting civilians from mass violence inflicted by their own government, the timeline, processes and priorities of mass violence and institutionalizing democracy are not the same, and in some cases, they can work at odds with each other.

From the vantage point of comparative study of atrocity endings, the most potent factor is to stabilize the political situation, removing as many uncertainties as are possible, while increasing pressure to protect civilians from violence. The task: clarify the political issues and forge international (especially regional) consensus, while increasing pressure and specificity of demands regarding the patterns of violence, and adding resources to support the actual work of protection, be it international monitors, police or military units.

So how might this apply to Burundi? Stabilizing and clarifying the political situation is not the same as expanding the arena for democratization, which often includes more uncertainties, ambiguities and diverse voices. Efforts to deepen democratic practice and atrocity prevention part ways at some along the continuum when violence is underway. If stabilization and ending political uncertainty are the critical ingredients for atrocity prevention when violence is on-going and seems likely to escalate, as many believe is the case in Burundi, then fully recognizing the electoral triumph of Pres. Nkurunziza is necessary. Calm his fears that international efforts in the name of protection are not actually regime change efforts. Such an approach may be unsavory, but it is not illegitimate. Here is why:

It is my understanding that the President’s party, the CNDD, would have won the presidential election with whichever candidate they put forward. In short, they had the votes.

While the maneuvering that Nkurunziza engaged in to find a legal loophole allowing him to seek a third term would not likely hold up under any neutral scrutiny of the key documents (the Arusha Acccords and the constitution), he did maneuver through the existing foundational documents and institutions. The constitutional court, which reviewed his third term arguments, was undoubtedly biased as the judges are presidential appointees, but that is not a situation he created, that is the structure of Burundi’s system. He did win an election, yes, a deeply flawed election, but one where some opposition members did manage to win or hold their seats as well. As a colleague pointed out to me, in Senegal, the president attempted a similar move by seeking an arguably illegal additional term, but he did not have the votes, so ran and lost the election. Burundi’s opposition could not achieve this.

The political opposition, in short, did not have the votes. This does not mean they deserve to be politically excommunicated—or brutalized as has happened with some–but it does mean their efforts to shift the conversation about legitimacy to extra-systemic political and military action is at least as illegitimate as the President’s third term, if not more. They have abandoned the pretense of following the rules, whereas he warped the existing rules.

Outside pressure and threats of military intervention to overturn even controversial and flawed elections, when the opposition did not have the votes to win in any case, is a deeply problematic position. Yet this is the undercurrent of U.S., other western states’ and the AU’s approach to Burundi. In the name of genocide prevention, “not another Rwanda,” the glimmer of intervention and remaining ambiguity in international positions on the elections is arguably likely to increase and prolong the period of violence.

One option that errs on the side of atrocities prevention would be to recognize the results of the elections as they stand. This need not by any means translate into carte blanche for Nkurunziza. His comments that seemed to signal willingness to abandon the historical accommodation enshrined in the Arusha Accords should be countered with resolute opposition by the international community. It is time, the message should be, to return to and re-validate the institutions established as the foundation of Burundi’s post-conflict dispensation as the very ones to pave the way for Burundi’s political future. In other words, it is time for everyone, internationals and the opposition included, to return to politics without relying on trump cards.

Further, ethnic polarization in public discourse should be unequivocally denounced. More than denouncing the inflammatory speech, Burundi’s political leaders should be responsible for issuing statements that intentionally calm violence. Any efforts to stabilize the political situation should be accompanied by fervent pressure that the leaders who benefit act like real leaders.

Would such a program help correct the distortion of democratic institutions initiated by the President’s bid for a third term? No, I do not think it does. This harm has been done, but it is unclear to me how it could be undone by caveat at this point without considerably more violence than what we’ve already seen.

Deepening democratic processes is not a crisis-driven endeavor. Democracy is nothing if not systemic—a set of practices that get worn into the regular course of political contention, channeled through institutions established for this purpose rather than routed around them. It is a language of engaged and accountable reform; it lacks drama and requires consensus and community building over the longer haul. For people outside a country who wish to support the growth of democracy, the greatest contribution is slow steady application of principles that return contention to debate and nonviolent organizing.

We do not see such an approach at present regarding presidential term limits in Africa from the AU or the wider international community, which has responded to various efforts to alter constitutions as if each case could be entirely isolated from every other case. Absent systemic and predictable responses, and given the very real and apparently escalating threat of widespread violence in Burundi, an atrocities prevention approach that errs on the side of stability would be more realizable than one predicated on ‘fixing’ democracy through crisis intervention.

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5 Responses to A provocation on Burundi

  1. Sarah Collman says:

    Interesting post, Bridget. I have one question:

    How do you tackle the civilian and opposition group (political, and now becoming more heavily armed) momentum that has been building for the past several months? If the AU and international community accept Nkurunziza’s win and go along with his demands for a political dialogue/settlement, I can’t see opposition groups stepping down. By opposing Nkurunziza’s third term you risk state-led violence against civilians, but if you accept the flawed election, who’s to say there won’t be other mass violence spurred by armed oppositions, or even civilians at the communal level?

    • Sarah, it’s a really good point. Again, my response emerges out of my comparative research not deep Burundi insights. So my thoughts should be taken with that grain of salt. But here is what I think: In the absence of clarity on the elections the international community is de facto backing the opposition, with (until just yesterday) a threat of coercive intervention hanging in the air. Further, this choice of policy has been expressed in the least clear way possible, a condition that, arguably, incentivizes violence on both sides. My argument is that clarity might be more stabilizing than uncertainty in this case—particularly if it is coupled with a peacekeeping force and firm international commitment to Arusha.

      A peacekeeping force could make a strong impact in stabilizing the level of violence, but it won’t be a coercive intervention. I am not convinced that the invocation of AU Article 4(h) was appropriate in this case, but regardless, it now seems to be off the table. It was a pretty bold proposition (one that should be reserved for truly exceptional violence given how dangerous it is to declare war–even ‘war’ in the name of protection), and working towards a consensual peacekeeping force is more feasible. To do this, you need the government’s consent.

      To keep the opposition and the Tutsi elite on board you also need unequivocal re-endorsement of the Arusha Accords and the principles, processes and institutions established out of the peace process, as far as I understand it. A question to ask is: are there things that the international community can do to re-invest in the political process, to help shift political actors to thinking their strategies along a longer timeline in which they organize to change the situation politically, both the person in the Presidency as well as the quality of governance? This political strategy needs to be the focus and would determine how any potential peacekeeping force would be deployed (mandate, rules of engagement) and where it would go. If the process of such a negotiation were to take the case of Burundi out of Museveni’s portfolio and move it to someone with a political mandate associated with the peacekeeping force, so much the better.

  2. Patrick says:

    Interesting
    1. Nkurunziza closed up political space since 2010, so opposition parties didn’t have any chance of winning these elections.
    2. Everyone who was strong enough to oppose him was jailed or exiled.
    3. This crisis was not born in April 2014 but more or less in 2011, everyone saw it coming hence UN SC making 2 trips to the country in 10 months
    4. The issues with Nkuruziza, he behaves like a teenager ( Does what he wants regardess of consequences). He is not willing to listen or work with anyone.
    5. Now he is pushing to remove term limits and Arusha accord ( which for him are the sources of the Burundi crisis )

    Looking the from inside Burundi, the behaviours and the type of gouvernance in Burundi, you will see that the ruling party have failed to progress from a rebellion to a main straim political force.

    My question is how do you deal politically with that set of mind ( where violence is at the heart of everything the ruling Does)? Remember Nkuruziza will never allow any peace keeping for in Burundi to protect civilians.
    He thinks as he did in 2010 he can kill the position to submission.

    • Any strong answer to these questions would require more Burundi expertise than I have. My sense, however, is that there is an important role for international actors to play to help secure the possibility for a more fair political field and to act as real guarantors of Arusha. The question is how to do this? I don’t think it’s best done through coercive intervention and the current “mediation” model. It seems to me that a stronger path would have been to make use of the threat of coercive intervention, but to be ready to make more concessions to the government about the status of the elections as a way to negotiate a permissive peacekeeping force and to shift the venue for mediation from EAC to the AU under the leadership of credible and engaged mediators, as its clear that Museveni has not defused the violence. I don’t think internationals can solve the political contention–this is the ‘regime change model’ that subverts a process that belongs to Burundians–but should act to help protect the space for addressing political contention.

  3. Burundistory says:

    Good points here. High time that the Intl community swallow its pride & do what is best for the stability of Burundi. The CNDDFDD perceive themselves as the defenders of democratic principles against those who would accede to power via coup d’état. They kept Burundi on the democratic path. How, do you say? Before the 3rd term controversy, way back in 2011 the radical opposition (Alexis Sinduhije & Co) made statements to the effect that after their poor showing in the 2010 elections, they would do all they could to disrupt the 2015 elections and force a transitional gov. Knowing the radical opposition was going to attempt this sort of undemocratic maneuver (force transitional gov) CNDDFDD was expecting the worst, and so the person with the best ability to withstand the coming storm was put forth as their candidate. CNDDFDD viewed that the potential of controversy over a barely legal candidacy would be less of a risk overall than possibly loosing everything. And they were right. And they picked the right man: Nkurunziza survived violent protests and a coup attempt to organize successful elections, and form a Multiethnic, multiparty gov, even convincing the main opposition leader Rwasa to put country first and join the government. The radical opposition were hoping Tessa’s numerous followers would assist them in inciting violence & instability in order to force a transitional gov. (Rwasa opted for the long game rather than an attempt at a “quick win” that could potentially destroy the country.) Rwasa’s move effectively undercut the radical opposition’s chances of any success at toppling Nkurunziza by rebel force, as without him, the radical opposition represent only about 6% at the polls and not all these are willing to take up arms as there is more to loose than gain. The only thing that the CNDDFDD grossly miscalculated was the international community’s fierce reaction, lack of understanding and support for the protest movement. This was followed by aid cuts and sanctions after the successful elections. It is crazy to think that the West still wants to force CNDDFDD to form a transitional gov with those who tried to topple the legitimate elected gov!
    The West’s plan for Burundi… Talk about a step back in Democratic gains: radical opposition disrupts election cause they can’t win it, yet they fail and it goes thru. Then they start using violence and then West pushes for them to get rewarded for it by being included in the transitional gov! Who even needs elections if that works. Ever five years just rise up and force a re-carving up of the pie. That will help Burundi become a more modern, democratic, & prosperous state. NOT!
    CNDDFDD also underestimated the radical opposition’s ability to get a PR machine rolling in order to control the narrative and manipulate the Intl community by playing on their fears of there being “another Rwanda.” The goverment is trying to play catch-up diplomatically, but as you pointed out, the Intl community needs to adjust its position because if they are going to have any dealings with Burundi at all (and the Burundian people do not deserve to be abandoned) they will have to deal with Nkurunziza and the CNDDFDD. You can’t circumvent the deFacto gov that is not going anywhere and has the 50-50% Tutsi-Hutu army& Police behind it. As for the “rebels,” they are mostly radicalized Urban youths disappointed that things didn’t turn out the way the fat cat politicians paying them and instrumentalising them said it would. The “rebels” have the ability to carry out small scale terror attacks such as throwing grenades onto crowded sidewalks but no ability to organize, regroup, hold territory, or actually fight the professional army. As organized rebellions, they exist only on Facebook & Twitter.
    Back to your main point: All these measures of the Intl community against the CNDDFDD-led gov will continue to be counterproductive, pushing them into defensive mode. As you pointed out, CNDDFDD has the legitimacy to rule (they have the votes. Around 70%), so the Intl Community needs to quit treating gem like the enemy, but rather engage with them, as the ones with the best chance and ability to restore stability (vs the radical opposition). One more point: the gov has already been able to successfully contain and isolate most of the instability and violence go just portions of four neighborhoods in the capital, allowing daily life & commerce to go on uninterrupted for millions of Burundians:a remarkable achievement already. Thanks again for your analysis from a political theory perspective. I hope the Intl community will listen to your sound advice, but I fear they will not. As for Burundi, it will be OK and life will go on either way. I don’t even think that the radical opposition can sustain the kind of indiscriminate violence they are engaged in 1. Without a backlash from their own sympathizers (killing women with babies on their back to oust CNDDFDD? that is not what they signed up for.) 2. Because of the Army & Police’s clear stance of backing the elected gov (for the sake of stability) the “rebel” ranks are shrinking as the Police & Army effectively engage them. Joining the “rebels” at this point is pretty much suicide: not too many new recruits want to sign up for that.

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